A dispute over disability rights is underway in Eastern Washington, where a Benton City man says the city has denied him the use of his service animal.
Tim Fulton uses what he describes as a miniature horse named Fred to complete the daily walks he says his doctor ordered to strengthen his lungs and prolong his life.
"I fall down from time to time," Fulton said. "It's really a pain."
Fred is slightly taller than a large dog, but Fulton says, he is exponentially stronger, which gives Fulton the added stability he needs.
Fulton said he has had multiple surgeries, a cancer scare, cataracts, two detached retinas, and a PTSD diagnosis, leaving him barely able to see or stand for long periods of time.
"He would feel me start to waiver and he would pull in front of me and stop, and I would lean against him," Fulton said. "Fred does a lot of stuff for me, helps me out."
Because Benton City doesn't allow horses in residential zones, it issued Fulton a $100 violation and demanded he relocate the animal.
"They violated my human rights, they violated my civil rights, and they violated the 13th amendment," Fulton said.
"That is discrimination, and the city is violating the federal law designed to protect someone with a disability," said David Carlson, director of legal advocacy at Disability Rights Washington. "There are good reasons why someone might use a small horse as a service animal and if someone does that you can't say well you can't live in our town."
People with disabilities are guaranteed the right to use service animals, including miniature horses, by the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Federal Fair Housing Act, which requires cities "to make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals."
KING 5 wrote the Benton City attorney referencing those protections and providing a note Fulton had obtained from a medical professional explaining that Fred, "is a guide animal that will help Fulton with stability." Benton City declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview and instead responded in a statement.
"Mr. Fulton has not met the requirements for the City to allow him to keep a miniature horse as a service animal in a residential zone...," wrote City Attorney Eric Ferguson, Kerr Law Group. "Additionally, the documentation provided by Mr. Fulton was obtained from a nurse practitioner who based his entire recommendation on the phrase, "Pt reports," implying that he has no first-hand knowledge of anything related to the service animal, but rather, can only speak to the disability of Mr. Fulton, which is not in doubt. From Mr. Fulton's own letters from medical professionals, it is clear that "Fred" is a Shetland Pony and not a miniature horse... It is our opinion, that under the current facts, allowing Mr. Fulton to maintain a large Shetland pony as opposed to a miniature horse in a neighborhood in close proximity to the other homes would fundamentally alter the nature of the City's zoning scheme with no facts to show that it is "necessary" under the law. In short, the case law makes it clear that persons with a disability are entitled to "equal opportunity" of the use of their property but are not entitled to a "better opportunity" than other citizens are allowed."
Washington Animal Law Attorney Adam Karp offered a second opinion.
"I believe such a retort would fail in court," Karp wrote in response to the city's position.
In a separate email, Karp added, "... It would seem to me that the City is splitting hairs of non-significance."
"How about obey the law, go figure," Fulton said.
Fulton is not the first to use a service horse. In 2014, an Ohio family sued the city of Blue Ash over the same issue and won. Just last year, another family prevailed in a similar fight in Kenai, Alaska.
"It is pretty clear cut. There shouldn't be a problem, because any city should be modifying it's rules if they affect people with a disability," Carlson said.
The Washington state Office of the Attorney General and the Washington state Human Rights Commission referred KING 5 to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who said it is now investigating Fulton's situation as a possible fair housing violation.
If Fulton prevails, Benton City may not only be forced to alter its policies but could also face financial penalties.